Saturday, March 18, 2006

John Roughan: Commissar Carter controls the country's richest asset

Chris Carter, Minister of Conservation, turns out to be sole commissar of the coastline. The costly public proceedings of an independent court and its considered decision count for nothing beside his arbitrary power.

After the Whangamata marina veto many are wondering, how could this happen?

Carter and fellow ministers cannot explain it. They say National wrote the ministerial power into the Resource Management Act 1991. National's keenest environmentalist then and now, Nick Smith, looks perplexed.

Quite a lot happens in Parliament without many of the elected members knowing much about it, as anybody who has worked there can attest.

The Resource Management Act, like the NCEA, was one of those big, boring projects that rumble up from the public service and spend so long in gestation that everybody assumes they have survived critical attention at some stage.

They can be in force for years before some of the institutional idiocies become apparent. And even once apparent they can have an in-built resistance to change.

Chris Carter and friends are not going to give up command of the coastline quickly - especially if coastal conservation lore is at last to be challenged.

After Whangamata, Carter thinks "the public needs to have a conversation about the coast".

So do I, though probably not the conversation he has in mind. But let's have it.

He says: "It's really important to lay out some environmental bottom lines. For New Zealanders especially the coastline is really important.

"And what we are very clear with Whangamata is that there is a deep vein of discontent. Are we going down the right path about what we do with the coastline ... ?"

This is the mind that can overrule courts.

The coast is not just "really important"; it is probably this country's richest asset from every point of view: scenic, residential preference, tourism and the economy.

It is not just really important, it is vital to lay out more than environmental bottom lines. This Government used to talk vaguely about triple bottom lines. It would be interesting to see the coastline's balance sheet.

My guess is it would give the lie to the conservation lore that the natural coastline is steadily disappearing under the pressure of development.

Every time I read articles that lament the disappearing coast I wonder if I live in the same country.

Go for any distance outside the cities and you see an uncluttered coastal landscape, great sweeps of farmland, mudflats, estuaries and bays, lonely sand dunes and lovely beaches - with not a soul enjoying them.

I like the loneliness but I like life too. And I worry, really worry, that we are severely reducing the country's economic potential by listening to this mythology that the coast is under threat.

Driving from the North Shore every day I try not to glance at Ngataringa Bay. I came to Auckland just as that epic early environmental battle was turning decisively against the developer who wanted to build a classy residential reclamation on the mudflats.

I was young, starting out with a newspaper that liked to campaign for fashionable causes. The Shore was my beat and Ngataringa Bay was the biggest story on it. I'm ashamed to admit now that I fell in line.

The developers were the villains of the story, the protectionists the heroes. I was always surprised that the developers' public relations agent, Cedric Allen, was unfailingly pleasant and helpful.

But then, the greenies were the same. Big, bearded Mike Pritchard and the earnest Stephen Mills were a pleasure to deal with.

I was never quite sure whether their concerns were more about the prospect of rich people moving into a modest neighbourhood than the dubious beauty of the bay.

But no matter, the day they won a majority on the Devonport Borough Council the development was dead. Thereafter the story was about the council's efforts to extricate itself from a contract at minimum cost.

Even in those days I sometimes looked at the aborted plans for a marine suburb, built on reclamations encircling trapped water, each house with its own jetty, and suppressed a certain regret.

I rarely went anywhere near Ngataringa Bay, but when I did the doubts were particularly hard to stifle. The place was, and still is, an ugly muddy waste, hardly a bay at all for most of the tide. It is a backwater the Waitemata would never have missed.

Some years later a marina was built off the end of Bayswater which visually protrudes on the harbour far more than Robbins Holdings' reclamation would have done.

All of that is water under the bridge, but it seems a salutary lesson now in how wrong-headed things can be.

I don't know the Whangamata marina site and have no view on its effects on the local iwi's shellfish beds or the direction of the surf-break.

But I trust the Environment Court to assess those objections much more dispassionately than the Minister of Conversation.

If a National minister had overruled an Environment Court finding against the marina he would be accused of a sellout to business, just as Carter is accused of pandering to Labour's constituencies. It is the nature of politics, and the reason politicians are not normally given judicial power.

Nothing about the coast warrants a political veto over decisions of a non-partisan court. The foreshore and seabed are public domain, but that is all the more reason to ensure that its development does not depend on the political breeze.

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